Tuesday, 29 March 2011

But it's just hair... ( a discourse on the psychology of black hair)

 *Disclaimer. I want to make it clear before I get someone's hackles up that I understand that 'race' is to some extent a sociolgical construct, not neccesarily a genetic one, that not everyone who perms their hair or wears a weave has a deep hatred of self, and that some people will disagree with what I've written and they are perfectly entitled to do so.

I remember when that India Arie song came out. " I am not my hair....I am not my skin", and everyone was extra deep and concious in their realisation that "they are the soul that lives within". Therefore meaning that being natural or permed or weaved didn't really define who they were.Cool. I understand that. I can dig that ideology.... kinda. It's a nice idea. Comfortably toted by the kumbaya chorus who scream at you 'there's only one race, THE HUMAN RACE!' whenever some kind of topic of racial difference is brought up. Again, nice idea, but when we woke up out of our rainbow coalition dream, in the cool air of Tuesday morning....
Your skin colour (unfortunately) has a significant impact on the course of your life, and your identity as a human being (no, not only if you 'let' it, it just does.)
The choices that black people make as a race (as a general group) about their hair, demonstrate that the issue is far deeper than hair, and that hair IS an issue of identity .I would love if it was just a 'styling choice', if the decision of perm vs weave vs extensions vs fro was as simple as choosing between  balsamic or apple cider vinegar at the local Tesco's. I'm going to try and prove my point.
Let's look a little bit at the history of black hair.
People of African descent throughout the diaspora have an interesting relationship with their former colonisers, slave owners etc. The European standard of beauty, has for the past 400 years or so, been the standard by which the majority of the world judges attractiveness.  In the slave world, the lighter skinned/ more mixed slaves would  work in the house. They were given more 'privileges' by the master, and were seen often as being in a more favourable position than the darker skinned or field slaves. (In all honesty, both groups had an equally hard time in my opinion, just a different experience..but anyway..). Lighter skin was often (not always) accompanied with more loosely curled hair. The closer you were in blood to the master, the straighter your hair was, the more privileges you had. Post slavery in America, the historically black universities had paper bag tests, and comb tests. Skin darker than a brown paper bag meant a NO ENTRY, from a lot of universities, as did hair that was too kinky for a fine toothed comb to be run through.
In colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, the same connections between straight hair, light skin and privilege were being made. Who wouldn't want to more like the more beautiful, more civilised Europeans??
Unfortunately,  black people had made an interesting discovery. You didn't have to have a good helping of non-African blood to get the desired straight effect, sodium hydroxide (aka lye, aka relaxers) could give you the sleek, shiny, blow in the wind locks you deserved. So what if it burnt your scalp a little and was strong enough to clean toilets? Make your way up that corporate ladder, honey .
As time went on, we went through the the black power, afro phase of the 1970's. The 80's brought the jherry curl, and by the 1990's we'd decided that hair was more or less a matter of styling choice. After all, we'd all worn sky high fro's in the 70's so all those psychological shackles of slavery and colonialism had been broken in 10 years, right? Wrong.
Because in 2011, I'm unfortunately still hearing people say they'd be 'upset' if when they go natural they have a certain 'nappy' texture. That they don't want to marry someone with 'bad' hair that will mess up their 'good hair' gene pool. That afros are unprofessional. That I'd look nicer if I straightened my hair. (Anyone ever heard someone tell a  white person they'd look better with an extra tight curly perm?).
This is why it's not just hair. This is why my natural hair is, to some extent, a statement. I'm not saying that everyone should wear an afro for political reasons. I'm not even saying that straightening your hair ever, is 'bad' persay (although heat does damage hair..that's another post). I am saying that before we dismiss something as just a styling choice, we need to examine the roots of where the choices come from. If you can comfortably say that you are satisfied with your natural hair texture, you don't have any notions of good' or 'bad' hair, you don't have hang ups about your natural hair being unglamorous, unprofessional etc, then cool. Do you. From what I've seen and heard, the majority of black woman can't say those things. Therefore, it's not just hair.

ETA: Thought I'd throw in some opposong points of view just for discussion...

Soul singer Beverley Knight balks at the notion that black women who straighten their hair, or wear weaves, are in some way ashamed of their ethnicity: "If there's one thing that will raise my hackles, get my back up and make me angry, it's that particular assertion. There is nothing more insulting, degrading and malevolent than to throw that in the face of someone," says Knight. "It's just a hair choice, nothing more, with no other connotations."

After all this time, people read ­ statements into how we wear our hair," says Mikki Taylor, beauty and cover director at African-American monthly Essence, which has a readership of more than eight million. "That's unfortunate. Some days if you want to wear your hair curly, why can't that just be it? It's got to be, oh what are they trying to say?"
What do you think?? Agree? Comment! Disagree? Comment.
Peace, Love, and Hair Grease folks!! xx


  1. I personally don't see anything wrong with not wanting a hair texture that is going to be more difficult to manage than another. And Afro's can be very unprofessional. You don't see our curly haired caucasian sisters letting their hair run wild in the board room! Neat and tied back is general protocol for all hair types, not just afros! And some people do look nicer with straight hair, especially if the way they style their natural hair is a hot mess!
    I think that when it comes to hair we want an easy life. I don't think theres anything wrong with not wanting to have a battle everyday with your hair, and for me that is a lot of the attraction with straight hair and weave/extentions. As for changing the status quo, not trying to be overly cynical, but I'd rather tame my hair and not try and shove the afro in the face of every prospective employer so I have a fairer chance of getting a job in this climate. Being black and female already puts you at a disadvantage and I think that sometimes we need to pick our battles in certain situations. Have an afro at the weekend if you must, but the whole 'black activist' thing just isn't really going to run in certain industries! Tis a fact of life I guess...
    The same way that 10 years of wearing afros in the 70s arguably hasnt changed much, the more I am convinced that this 'how should I wear my hair' is a personal battle.

  2. Hey Anonymous :-). I hear your point in that that it is a personal battle. I don't think I have the right to dictate to anyone how they should wear their hair.
    I disagree with the point about manageability...I think a lot of what we see as unmanageable is realy us as black woman not having had the chance to grow up understanding how to deal with our hair. My hair is not hard to manage. It's pretty standard black hair in my opinion.
    Picking our battles...yup I totally hear you on that. It's an individual thing to decide which battles we try and pick. My fear is that if we keep conforming to a standard becuse we don't want to be seen as 'militant' or radical, will we ever reach the point where we can have true authenticity about who we are? Are we continuously gonna be subject to someone elses norm? When is the point where we say 'that's enough..everyone else can wear their hair out in their natural state, why can't I?'

  3. Oh and to add. Afro's can be unprofessional as can other styles. It's how you style it. If I pull my afro back woth a hair band and it's all nicely done, it's not unprofesiional in my opinion...but to each their own...

  4. I don't mind if people wear their hair straightened or relaxed.

    What irks me is that it is the norm for people to suggest my hair should be relaxed so that it looks 'prettier' or shows off the length, or the idea that my hair is 'unmanageable' or doesn't grow, or the fact that many girls simply aren't given the choice. Why is this normal? It shouldn't be and it drives me nuts that it is.